This is the second article in a series on deliberate practice. The first in the series dealt with the concept of deliberate practice as a general principle and today we’ll dive into mental representations as an essential component of deliberate practice.
Imagine this scenario. You’re comfortably seated on a trans-Atlantic flight on your way to a well-deserved summer vacation with your family. As you and your fellow passengers are settling in for a nap during the long flight, the flight attendant makes an overhead announcement: “If there’s anyone who knows how to fly a plane, please ring your call bell.” Having taken a few flying lessons years ago, you timidly press the call button. The flight attendant leads you to the cockpit after explaining that the pilots have both become incapacitated.
You stare at the glowing scene in front of you, bewildered. “How in the world will I be able to land this thing? I don’t even know where the radio is.” You begin to perspire and your hands grow clammy as you climb into the pilot’s seat.
Moments later you awaken with a start, realizing that it was merely a bad dream.
Aside from manual and sensory skills at manipulating the controls, what is it that the pilots have, that you do not?
They might claim to “have the Right Stuff” but what actual pilots really have are layers and layers of mental representations - the structure of the air traffic control system in three dimensions, all of the systems of their aircraft, where each display and control fits into those systems. While you might eventually be able to figure it all out in time; it’s more likely that the aircraft would run out of fuel long before you could acquire accurate mental representations of the plane in flight. Sorry to break the news, but experience and the mental representations are what make the difference between the guy who went on a couple flights in a Cessna and the pros in the front of a modern airliner.
So why are mental representations so vital to expert performance? It’s because expert performance is distinguished in large part by the depth and accuracy of the performer’s mental representations.
“A mental representation is something that the brain uses to orient itself to a particular field of endeavour.”
Mental representations are efficient
As in our imaginary cockpit scenario, your performance is dramatically enhanced if you don’t have to repeatedly re-acquire the fundamentals. Having concepts and structures represented by models in your head means that you can do things automatically that others could not. They also give you a language for talking about concepts and skills that you otherwise would not have.
Mental representations are a scaffolding on which you build new knowledge and skills.
If you have an understanding of balance of forces of an aircraft in flight, you might be slightly closer to actually being able to fly the plane. If you had a mental model of how the controls of the plane alter the aerodynamic forces, you’d be closer still. Having a mental framework for your endeavour lets you “plug-in” new information in a way that you wouldn’t be able to do if you lacked that framework. When an expert does something that seems to border on the magical or impossible, you can bet that they’ve built a mental model around that activity that allows them to execute it automatically.
Mental representations allow you to recognize patterns.
As we’ll see in a moment, pattern recognition is one of the ways that we can use mental representations to improve practice. Again, by holding a conceptual framework in your head, you’ll be able to see relevant patterns that untrained people cannot.
As Anders Ericsson points out, mental representations become a sort of virtuous cycle where having these cognitive frameworks leads to better performance and at the same time, better practice yields stronger mental representations.
Mental representations as an aid to better practice
So a mental representation is something that the brain uses to orient itself to a particular field of endeavour. How does that help us in practice?
1. Mental representations allow us to do things automatically
Imagine that you never developed mental representations of playing the violin, for example. You wouldn’t recognize that drawing the bow across the string makes a tone. You would have to relearn that stopping the strings with the left hand causes the pitch to change. And so on. Mental representations allow us to take cognitive shortcuts in the brain that result in quicker acquisition of ability.
2. Mental representations allow us to practice more effectively
Students who have built effective representations of practice see patterns in music that relate to how they should approach it in practice. For example, they have a structural understanding of why certain types of passagework are difficult and will immediately devise a strategy to work through it. They will understand how the fingering is affected by multiple considerations. When students do something quickly before it was even explained to them how to do it, that’s a sign of effective mental representations. They were able to do it because they have encountered something like it before and registered it as a mental representation.
3. Mental representations allow us to self-correct
When we have a deep understanding of how a piece should sound (there’s that listening again!) then a sort of auto-correction feature takes over. Students with better mental representations of the music, both how they hear it in their mind’s ear and in how they see sections of the piece on a micro-level are better at correcting mistakes in practice.
How can I help my child build better mental models in their music?
1. Help them understand that improvement is a function of sustained practice
The first concept that children and their families must deeply internalize is this: “Improvement in your playing will happen regardless of who you are. Whatever built-in talent you have, you will realize it only through practice.”
This is the first and foremost mental model - a model of how learning and improvement occur - because without it, a sustained commitment is not possible.
2. Help them build networks of knowledge
We know that brain is organized as a deeply-interconnected network of nerve cells and that we build those networks through repeated exposure to related ideas. Is your child learning a piece by Bach? Then read about Bach. How many children did he have? When did he live? In what musical period did he compose? What are the characteristics of that style?
Or during practice asking questions about what you see and hear will promote the sort of analytical thought that helps feed the networks in the brain that ultimately constitute their mental models.
At the right time in their musical development, beginning to study music theory is another way of building mental representations. Western music behaves in predictable ways because of its mathematical underpinnings. Developing a deeper understanding of what’s going on “under the hood” will help children see patterns that make interpretation more efficient.
Extending Suzuki’s language-learning metaphor a bit, observe the results of learning a language when students are immersed in it. Here in Canada, where I live, French immersion schools are common. Students learn all of their subjects in French. And students seem to speak better French as a result. What does immersion look like in music? It’s attending concerts of all kinds, reading about music, listening constantly to a wide range of selections.
4. Ask more questions. And better questions.
“Have you seen that type of figure before in your music? Do you remember what it’s called?”
Asking questions forces the child to think about the answer and add it to her memory bank. This type of mental sorting and classifying work will help build better mental representations. Some of the best questions to ask are those that send the child off on some self-discovery.
“I wonder if it would sound better this way, or some other way…”
We humans are curiosity and discovery engines. What we discover, we remember.
5. Develop your own understanding of your child’s field of interest
When the famous music pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki began teaching very young children, he would first begin lessons with the child’s mother. Of course, doing so sparked the child’s own interest and enthusiasm to begin his own lessons. But whether you ultimately play your child’s instrument or not, there is another value in being involved, which is that you can better reinforce what the child is learning when you have your own mental models to draw from. A later article in this series will focus on our own parallel development of expertise as parents.
In the meanwhile, one vital parting comment:
You can’t build mental representations solely through knowledge. Clearly knowledge is integral, but it is only through the doing of something that employs that knowledge that we can build skill.
You have to put in the time integrating and using all of that knowledge.
Listen well, and practice well!